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Mt. Folly Farm kicks off “climate-smart” farming programs through USDA grant

Cattle stand in the distance at a field at Mt. Folly Farm.
Shepherd Snyder
Cattle stand in the distance at a field at Mt. Folly Farm.

Mt. Folly Farm is getting $5 million from the grant to help it focus on what the USDA calls “climate-smart” farming.

More than $1 million worth of the funds will be directly passed on to farmers in the Eastern Kentucky region. It’s meant to build a network of farmers trained for carbon-friendly agriculture. Ben Pasley is the CEO of Mt. Folly Enterprises, which runs the farm and its associated food brands. He says that training involves working with medium sized farms between 1,000 and 1,500 acres.

“That medium sized farm that has really been struggling over the last few decades and generations, because it's so hard for the family farm to continue,” Pasley said. “You see more people selling out to the next big row crop guy to become, you know, a piece of industrial agriculture.”

But from a national perspective, the USDA wants to see the results to see if it’s something they can implement federally, through the National Resource Conservation Service. Mt. Folly Farm is working with Eastern Kentucky University and the nonprofit Savory Institute to help measure these outcomes.

“For our case, with cattle, it's adding rotational grazing, it's adding silvopasture, which is planting trees in your pasture ground,” Pasley said. “It's a few things defined within NRCS, as far as the practice codes that are changing the way that conventional farmers are currently farming.”

The goal is to train 100 farmers around eastern Kentucky and the Ohio River Valley through five years. Alice Melendez is the project lead and is organizing the network.

“They have a guess of what different practices will yield for different counties, down to the county level,” Melendez said. “And so we'll see what's real. And they're just (testing) their model by using this big USDA investment to trial it on thousands and thousands of farms around the US.”

For the farmers using these practices, climate-smart farming also needs to be economically viable. Dylan Kennedy is a representative from the Savory Institute and is helping work with Mt. Folly. He helped lead a public tour of the farm last week, going through some of the climate-smart practices that would be used to help local farmers succeed, like regenerative grazing.

“What if we could take the same amount of land that you've got right now, and we can grow twice as much grass on it?” Kennedy said. “Now you've got a whole other farm for free. That's the kind of thing that we can start doing. We manage recovery times, the way we're doing it right here.”

Kennedy said a lot of what “climate-smart” agriculture comes down to is taking care of the soil. That means using climate-friendly fertilizer and topsoil. During the wagon tour, a bucket of biochar was passed around to attendees. Biochar is organic material that has been heated up at high temperatures in places with no oxygen to create charcoal.

“I'm a fan of saying that there's nothing new in agriculture,” Kennedy said. “We've been doing this since the dawn of civilization, we've tried everything. This is one of those approaches that's really old. And it's so old that actually a lot of people haven't heard about it.”

The grant is also meant to establish a market for these climate-friendly foods. In Mt. Folly’s case, they mean to market and sell what are called “climate-smart commodities” at grocery stores across the Ohio River Valley. In particular, the farm is using the grant to focus on a climate-friendly beef brand. That has its roots in the farm’s origins as Laura’s Lean Beef.

Melendez said these practices are also ways to keep their livestock - and the people who consume them - healthy.

“We're trying to make this healthier way of raising livestock,” Melendez said. “And a regional economy feeds the people here better. And when the animals are healthier, the people are healthier.”

And that marketing is also good for local tourism - Chase Asher is in charge of the farm’s moonshine trail that will span six distilleries across eastern Kentucky. It’s set for a big promotional push next year.

The moonshine trail isn’t directly affected by the climate-smart program, but he said much of the products made through the USDA grant will also be used to promote it. Asher hopes it will bring more curious eyes to eastern Kentucky.

“So the farm itself is going to be a tourist stop, as well as the liquor that we produce from the farm, which contributes to that,” Asher said. “That circular economy that we're trying to focus in on, that's going to be the big thing.”

The grant’s good for five years - but Alice Melendez says she thinks it’s indicative of how local farmers can still carve their place in agriculture for years to come.

“We're just like right at the very cusp and this is the welcome tour,” Melendez said. “We're going to be doing this for five years and probably for 50 years after that."

Shepherd joined WEKU in June 2023 as a staff reporter. He most recently worked for West Virginia Public Broadcasting as General Assignment Reporter. In that role, he collected interviews and captured photos in the northern region of West Virginia. Shepherd holds a master’s degree in Digital Marketing Communication and a bachelor’s in music from West Virginia University.
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